A Note from Europe: The End of the World is Nigh

The mid-July headline of the German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung (SZ) commenting on the two debt crises in Europe and the United States reads “The End of the World Is Near – But Only for You.” The article cleverly illustrates the deepening transatlantic gap when it comes to political and economic frames of reference. Americans are convinced that Europe is about to collapse and see the current and recurring Euro crisis as confirmation for their long-standing mistrust of transnational cooperation and their belief that the Euro is doomed to fail. The Europeans in the meantime watch breathlessly what Norman Ornstein calls the “Worst. Congress. Ever.” and take the impending US default as a further sign of the rapid decline of this country. (Indeed – eight years after Emmanuel Todd’s bestseller on the breakdown of American order the reading European public can now choose among a wealth of new European and American titles diagnosing, explaining and analyzing US decline). To the SZ author’s mind the doomsday scenarios as well as the respective Schadenfreude are absurd because with some political will both crises can be solved. But the debates on either side of the Atlantic reveal not only different priorities, but altogether different historical and national experiences. In the United States partisan ideology poses an obstacle to pursuing a policy of national interest. For European countries, nationalist rhetoric is an impediment to a successful and sustainable European policy which in turn serves the national interests of the member states.[i]  On both sides of the Atlantic some politicians are losing sight of the proper frame of reference, the larger picture, namely the common weal, which in the US is national and in Europe transnational.

David Ekbladh underscored in his last post how much influence had been accorded to international voices in 1940s America. My own research in this period confirms his point. American political debates were remarkably cosmopolitan (admittedly somewhat Euro-slanted) and certainly benefitted from this openness. One of the most detrimental aspects of American exceptionalism is the tendency to see this nation as standing somewhat apart from the world and ordinary human history. This false sense of invulnerability and insularity leads to overreaction when the world or history do catch up with us, but also to the formulation of stunningly parochial solutions to economic and political problems. This is astonishing for a country at the center of an interdependent world which moreover designed a whole set of international institutions in recognition of this interdependence – in the 1940s.

If we look at the US and Europe in a larger global context their similarities come into focus more readily. While the origins and solutions to the two debt crises are different, they are nonetheless both indicative of structural weaknesses of the former ‘first world.’ As a result “the West is shrinking” as the Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ) concludes.[ii] But is this good or bad, we might ask? ‘Bad,’ the NZZ maintains, pointing to a meaningful coincidence of the dual financial crises and NATO’s troop withdrawal from Afghanistan where “the strategic goals of 2001 have become unattainable.”  A further transatlantic similarity according to this Swiss perspective is: no money – no vision – no political will. Mere navel-gazing.

Indeed, somewhat surprisingly, the area in which pundits had first and most consistently bemoaned the transatlantic gap – foreign policy and military intervention – appears now in quite a different light.[iii] Observers find both the US and Europe delinquent in their tasks of maintaining order around the world. And recent developments reveal that the 2003 transatlantic rift over military intervention was in no way as fundamental as some of us thought at the time. The editor of the weekly French L’Express, acknowledging the lack of funds for France’s world-political ambitions, nevertheless encouraged his compatriots with the observation that “The countries we liberate, Libya and the Ivory Coast, have resources. They will repay us in the form of raw material and energy, for example. They also might buy some defense equipment from us one day, perhaps a few Rafale (fighter jets).” Was that Rumsfeld speaking?

And there is one area where the Europeans and the Americans are even more in sync and that is popular incredulity and frustration over incompetence, greed, stupidity and self-delusion. The main targets are politicians, but financial banksters and ruthless media moguls fill out the rogue’s gallery. A wave of self-made downfalls /crashes/ scandals has swept over the powerful and mighty. While American readers will be familiar with sexual misconduct, financial rackets, and illicit journalism, they might be less familiar with a plague of academic fraud (i.e. plagiarism) that toppled one of Germany’s most promising national politicians, former defense minister Karl Theodor zu Guttenberg and that has now caught up with several of his colleagues across party lines (it is a German peculiarity that political authority is often enhanced by a “doctor title.”). Citizens across Europe and the United States are voicing strikingly similar anger and disbelief with egotism, small-mindedness, and rapacity at the highest levels of government, finance and industry. Too many members of the generation now in power (which happens to be my own generation) apparently have no concern for the common good – whether national or transnational.


[i] After some foot dragging German chancellor Angela Merkel confirmed the wisdom of all her predecessors that protecting the European Union and the Euro is a historical task with no alternative.

[ii] “Der Westen schrumpft” Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 23/24 July 2011, headline story.

[iii] I have always thought that Robert Kagan was on to something with his 2002 Mars-Venus argument that Europe and the United States changed places in mid-century, pursuing military power politics versus realizing a peaceful transnational utopia. But Kagan’s polemic relied on stark transatlantic dichotomies and argumentative shortcuts while the subject deserves more careful analysis by a historian perhaps.